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sinner also in respect of language is Bulwer Lytton, who in his earlier writings carries the style of Wardour Street even into his novels of fashionable life. Like Ainsworth, he has left on record his views on the writing of fiction in the preface to The Last of the Barons. Nowadays the author intrusts disclosures of this kind to his publishers, who contrive to indicate the purpose of the book and the method pursued in writing it in the dexterous puff preliminary which accompanies the advertisements, or else he induces a journalistic friend to give him a paragraph in his paper to the same end; but fifty or sixty years ago he unburdened himself in a preface, which was often long and substantial enough to serve as an apology for his life instead of merely for his book. "To my mind," says Lytton, "a writer should sit down to compose a fiction as a painter sits down to compose a picture. His first care should be the conception of a whole as lofty as his intellect can grasp — as harmonious and complete as his art can accomplish; his second care the character of the interest which the details are intended to sustain." Some extremely just remarks follow on the subject of composition, and of fiction considered as an art; but it is a little singular that they should serve to introduce a book which is by no means one of the author's most successful attempts at carrying out his own theories. Lytton rarely errs like Ainsworth in flagrant violation of history; his hap is to light upon epochs the events of which are much disputed, and he exercises his undoubted right of choosing the course best suited to his story. But his danger lies in the attempt to include too many characters, and cover too large an extent of ground. This leads to a want of unity in the design, and to occasional violent dislocations of the interest, while the author turns from one group of personages at a crisis in their history to treat of the fortunes of another. Among his historical novels, 'Harold,' we think, is the least open to censure in this respect, although 'The Last Days of Pompeii' would probably have the popular vote in its favour.
But although Lytton's historical novels stand high above the general run of similar productions of his age, it is not in them, so far as our opinion goes, but in his tales of mystery, that his peculiar talent finds its fittest expression. In the power of inspiring sheer blood-curdling horror, none the less terrible because it is produced without the description of any tangible object, Zanoni stands alone. Mrs Radcliffe, and her follower Ainsworth, might revel in mechanical devices for moving the soul to terror; but the effect of such tricks, although they may make the flesh creep at the first time of reading, is feeble and transitory compared with the impression left on the mind which has fallen under the spell of the Watcher on the Threshold. Here nothing is explained away: the horror remains as mystic, as in tangible, and as awe-inspiring at the last reading as at the first, for — and here lies the secret of its permanence — while other spiritual presences in novels belong to special localities or attend special persons, — are attached, so to speak, to the books in which they occur, — the Watcher on the Threshold might be encountered by any one, might be at the moment in the very room with the reader, as he glances up fearfully, with the feeling that he is not alone.
Like other authors who have struck on a new idea, and worked it successfully, Lytton was beset by many imitators — or perhaps it would be kinder to say that his success revealed to others the channel which their thoughts had long been seeking, and in which they might profitably flow. One of the most prominent of these followers was the Rev. George Croly, whose romance, Salathiel the Immortal dealt with the fall of Jerusalem, interweaving with the history of the period the legend of the Wandering Jew. We smile to day as we read the extracts from laudatory reviews inserted, quite in modern fashion, in the fore front of the second edition of Salathiel, and see that the Athenæum pronounced it "one of the most splendid productions among works of fiction that the age has brought forth"; and that the Gentleman's Magazine saw in it the "germ of perpetuity," and said that it was " not destined, like other works of imagination, to be read and forgotten." But those who have read the book in childhood will own that, in a restricted sense, at any rate, the reviewer was right, for the chapters which treat of such episodes as the fall of Masada and the siege of Jerusalem can never be forgotten. To another follower of Lytton's we have already alluded, Miss Eliza Lynn, the author of Amynione, a Romance of the Days of Pericles, and Azeth, a work in which the Egyptology of the period is combined with a kind of theosophy (we hope this is not libellous), which recalls forcibly the religious works of Miss Marie Corelli. In one of Charlotte Brontë's recently published letters, she declines to read either book, on the ground that extracts from them in reviews have presented the author to her imagination as a Bulwer Lytton in petticoats — " an overwhelming vision," as she very justly observes. If the author of Jane Eyre were alive to-day, we fear that the antipathy she anticipated would still exist, although for a different reason, since the Miss Lynn of her day is the Mrs Lynn Linton of ours, the sworn foe of the New Woman, and the universal provider of weapons for those who would attack her. Does alike development await the lady of many editions fifty years hence, we wonder?
Related Material on Victorian Historical Novels
- Historical Fiction in Victorian Britain (homepage)
- The Lack of Historical Accuracy in Early Victorian Historical Fiction of Harrison Ainsworth
- G.P.R. James
“Early Victorian Fiction.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. 161 (May 1897): 636-52. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 15 September 2020.
Last modified 15 September 2020